Ad Blocking is the Best Thing to Ever Happen to Marketing

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People hating and avoiding ads isn't new, but marketers caring about it is.

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Marketers have long labored under the assumption that people care about their messages. Some do, especially if they are existing customers, or are so far along the “funnel” that the right message at the right time could tilt them to some action. The majority of consumers are much more ambivalent about marketing, and that ambivalence gives way to feelings more decidedly negative when the topic turns to advertising.

Now, the ultimate utility of marketing as a profession isn't in question here. Marketers do far more than commission ad campaigns, and the job is only getting more complex as data and data systems mature.

But people do not like ads. They never have. It's a truth that underpins the foundations of the ad blocking craze that has seemingly caught the marketing industry flat-footed. Marketers are especially sensitive to the trend of ad blocking because it limits their unprecedented access to consumers online. It's this environment of heightened sensitivity that illustrates the power of ad blocking.

For the first time, marketers are holding themselves accountable for the ads they create and serve. Quality control is a big topic now, where in the past, marketers never really had to consider the quality of their advertisements, only the results. Did the ad generate business, or in some way convey or fortify the brand message? If yes, produce another. If not, change the creative, hire a new team. Start again.

All the while the general population were not-so-silently hating advertisements, whether on TV commercials or infomercials, pop-ups ads on the early web, or the (effectively invisible) static web banners of today.

The digital ad blocking craze forces marketers to respect what consumers were telling them when:

  • People changed the channel during commercials
  • Viewers skipped TV spots entirely when DVR became the norm
  • Web browsers began natively blocking pop-up ads
  • Websites experienced high bounce rates from interstitial ads
  • Google announced it would penalize the search listings of sites that inhibit load times on mobile with ads
  • Apple introduced native mobile ad blocking on Safari.

People hate ads. People are blocking ads, and they will continue to do so.

Facebook's and Twitch TV's crusade against ad blocking is futile. Publishers that block ad blocking users from their content may find that content reposted in full elsewhere in what is likely the genesis of news piracy. This is a war of attrition that businesses cannot hope to win. It's the best thing to ever happen to the marketing industry.

Marketers now need to re-examine the advertising model, and possibly even the concept of ad-supported media in general. It's an old paradigm that was built on the assumption that lift or growth can be meaningfully attributed to an advertising campaign. Ads can perform extraordinarily well, sure. Marketing textbooks are filled with examples of big brands literally influencing culture through ads. Outside of these exceptions though, the reality is that it's extremely difficult to corroborate a lift in performance with a particular ad campaign (although it's a challenge many are still working on).

Marketers have been largely empirical with tracking the performance of their ads. We ran X campaign and saw Y lift as a result. But was the ad truly responsible? Maybe Hasbro lost a key licensing contract and now Bandai is booming. Is that boom from Bandai's latest ad, or Hasbro's negotiations challenges? What's the split, because the answer is probably both.

Before marketers could effectively answer such questions, the systems behind traditional advertising evolved into the robust digital ad networks we have today. By the end of the year, marketers will have spent $72.09 billion on digital ads, and $71.29 billion on TV ads, according to eMarketer. How many marketers can demonstrate a proportional return on their ad investments when hundreds of millions of people are blocking ads on mobile and desktop?

What we have here now is an environment where marketers and publishers have to answer some tough questions about attribution, deliverability, and quality of ad experience. Do marketers have answers to these (admittedly old) questions? Maybe some think they do, but everyone is still determining the best approach to the ad blocking problem. Reacting, as it were.

But eventually new norms will be established. The forthcoming Brave browser — which blocks all ads automatically — and even Adblock Plus are working with advertisers on ways to serve better, safer ads. Consumers, for their part, are beginning to recognize that the trade-off for access to free content is giving data and accepting ads, and advertising institutions like the IAB understand that great ad experiences are key in driving that trade.

Ad blocking isn't a trend that's directly helped marketers. It's been fairly harmful in fact, but its proliferation is driving this new period of introspection and accountability. These are tough times for digital marketers, but both marketers and the consumers they advertise to will be better for this contentious period of tug-of-war when everything's said and done.

Welcome to Contrarian Week, a week where we invite readers to send us their contrarian opinions.

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